Category Archives: desert

Isozaki Pavilions

Yesterday I was lucky enough  to be invited along on a field trip to see the three seasonal sleeping pavilions that Arata Isozaki built for Jerry Sohn in Pipes Canyon.

Pipes Canyon is about 40 minutes drive from our house, near Garth’s land, and the area is totally spectacular–equal to the National Park.

I was curious to see what Isozaki came up with. I would love to sleep outdoors more – especially on summer nights, when it’s hot inside and perfectly lovely outside – but it seems tricky: if you leave your bedding out, scorpions, snakes and black widows might burrow in. In other seasons, wind and chill can make sleeping outdoors less appealing, though the stars are amazing year round.

I was impressed by the designs:

The winter pavilion is a cube with glass on the south and west faces, as well as overhead. It’s oriented so the afternoon sun can heat up the slab and warm the small space. The ceiling glass lets the sleeper see the stars.

The summer pavilion is a cantilevered slab, away from snakes and open to the breeze.

The spring/fall pavilion is beautiful, though the function of its shape and orientation is less clear. Perhaps the roof and wall are meant to shelter against a prevailing wind, or the occasional rain? If nothing else, the barrel vault is sensual and welcoming and breaks open the formality of the other two.

And what about bedding? There are metal boxes near each pavilion that apparently hold sleeping bags (I wonder what they use for padding?).

It’s too bad most of us get one bedroom for all seasons (and one house) because really the shelter we need is so different from season to season, and there’s a lot to be gained by separating them.

Photos: domus.


Donald Judd’s Marfa kitchens

A few months ago I visited Donald Judd’s La Mansana de Chinati in Marfa, Texas.

I was most inspired by his domestic spaces, which were not really on the tour, but could be glimpsed around the periphery. Look at that shelf behind the kitchen counters – so handy and beautiful!

My photos of the house kitchen, below, are terrible, but I find myself coming back to them to study the details of the furniture and the room itself:

Another thing I liked about Judd’s studios is that there’s a daybed in almost every room. That level of human comfort seems rare among modernists. As my brother-in-law Ely said, “there can be a sense that the staging of human life is not their first purpose.”

If you have a chance to visit Judd’s Marfa house and studios, don’t miss it.

nbtsc in the desert

group photo-1070163

I’ve been going to the Oregon sessions of Not Back to School Camp on and off since I was 16 – almost 20 years. It’s where my husband Nathen and I met, which means it’s also why I live in the desert. So imagine my delight when I found out there would be a session of camp just down the road from our house.

It’s been six months since that session wrapped up. It was totally lovely, and I look forward to the next one (it’s pencilled in for November 2016).

Here are the group photos my brother Rob took of the whole group, then staff, then just junior staff (the latter win for style).

staff photo best-1070176jr staff-1070189
jr staff-1070190

Tiny Trailer Living, Year 3

I posted a bunch of pictures when we first moved into the trailer (and some were published in Lloyd Kahn’s book Tiny Homes on the Move). We’ve been living here over two years now and have made some changes, so I thought I’d post an update.

So many of the tiny homes on the internet are photographed before anyone has ever moved in, so I hope you’ll enjoy the realistic clutter I’ve staged for you.

Click through to read the captions.




Vintage trailer repair, JT style

Our friend Barnett fixes up vintage trailers to rent out during the Joshua Tree Music Festival.  I really like the way he fixes them: a coat of paint for waterproofing, rusted metal patches on the siding, wooden window frames, improvised doors. The insides are usually gutted and painted bright colours; plywood patches are applied where needed. A lot of the trailer renos you see on the internet are painstaking restorations. This is not that. This is something a little wilder.


Recently on the homestead

A visit to Quail Springs Permaculture

sasha's house

Our architect and natural builder friend Nicholas Holmes took Nathen and I to visit Quail Springs Permaculture, a demonstration farm and village nestled in a canyon near Santa Barbara. Quail Springs hosted a weekend harvest festival that included a tour of the farm, Q&A, and workshops on milking and butchering.

Brenton speaking

Because we went with Nicholas, we also got an architectural tour, which was great! The handful of houses on the property all seemed to be around 400 sq feet, and each boasted a slightly different design and mix of materials while maintaining a sense of aesthetic unity. A bit like a historical reenactment village… OF THE FUTURE. Some houses had kitchens, while others were just studio-bedroom pods (there is a communal kitchen and composting toilets just a little ways down the canyon).

W's house? Brenton & Jan's house Hide house

Nicholas described a roofing system used on several of the buildings at Quail Springs: reed mats are tacked up to the rafters with strips of wood; an earthen plaster is applied from the top and wiped flush from below. Then blue-jean insulation batts go between the rafters, and a plywood and metal roof is screwed on top. I like the texture of the ceilings.

Reed ceiling

Nicholas had lots of great things to say about light straw-clay (otherwise known as straw-clay, light-clay, or leichtlem), which is straw coated in a clay-slip and tamped into forms around a timber frame. Apparently it offers more insulation than cob due to the high straw content, while being more moisture-resistant than straw bale, due to the clay (I’m making a test brick right now, with clay harvested from a wash and some extra mulch straw).

straw-clay with 3 kinds of lathe
The side of a straw-clay bathhouse in progress, showing three kinds of lathe: reed, burlap and metal.

We slept in a straw-clay dome two nights while we were there, and I loved the japanese-paper texture of the walls and the cozy feel.

nathen, sleeping

Also, the view! sasha's view

There’s a lot more to say about Quail Springs, but that’s enough for one post.

Wildcrafting the parking lots of the high desert

vons olives

There is nothing quite so exciting as finding food in trees, especially in the desert. Once you start looking, you notice more and more. Honey mesquite trees are commonly used in parking lot landscaping all over the high desert. The other day a friend and I were snacking on mesquite pods in a parking lot and were approached with curiosity by both the manager of the nearby McDonalds and a panhandler. Both were very skeptical about tasting the pods. If only they knew how much the flour costs in health food stores.

Olive trees are less common, but I just noticed these ones in a supermarket parking lot in Yucca Valley. Score.

I’m starting to keep season and location notes for myself so I will know exactly where to harvest things like olives, mesquite, palo verde, prickly pear, pine nuts and wolfberries from around town when they’re in season.

Pod living

dream house w/attached office

Earlier this year I drew up plans for a dream house. We seemed on the brink of acquiring an acre and a half very near where our trailer is now, next to two sets of in-laws. I read obsessively about passive solar, kitchen ergonomics and earthships. We visited locals and I revised my drawings daily.

dream kitchen sketch

The land, it turned out, was not (yet) for sale, and with Nathen working full time we knew we wouldn’t have the time to start building right away anyway.

Around the same time, I got concerned about water. Plenty of places that call themselves deserts get 10 or even 20 inches of rain a year. Joshua tree gets about 4. If you haven’t thought about rain in inches much, those four inches could come down in 4 torrential hours. PER YEAR.

weather station screen
Half way through the August rain event, our weather station registered .54 of an inch.

Because of some questionable uses of our local aquifer, Joshua Tree has recently started buying water from Northern California, via the California aqueduct. Aqueducts are huge energy consumers and don’t contribute, generally, to a strong sense of water security.

Given all that, does it even make sense to put down roots here? Am I ready to make that leap? 

So I temporarily put away the idea of home-building. But here we are, and the need for a more functional home didn’t go away. Recently I’ve been thinking that my dream house, under the circumstances, might not be a house so much as a series of pods.

pantry/trailer aerial
Nathen putting a new roof on the pantry, where our fridge and chest freezer live.

Pods are a way of meeting our shelter needs while turning the idea of a house inside-out (or rather, outside-in). A pod-based design allows building in stages, as time and resources permit. It allows experimentation with materials. Pods are also potentially moveable if we end up with land nearby. And local building code allows for 100 sq ft sheds (eg, 12′ x 8′) without permits.

bathhouse aerial
The bathhouse, with Grandpa Bob’s trailer off to the side.

The bathhouse and pantry are already useful pods. My sewing RV is too. Each of those can be improved, aesthetically and functionally. The next pod on my wish list is a sleeping pod. The trailer is hot in the summer and cold in the winter. Building a little, well-insulated room that fit just our bed and clothing would also take a lot of pressure off the trailer: the area that is now our bed could become two couches with a hallway between them, which would give us somewhere to sit other than the kitchen table.

We converted two single beds with an aisle between them into a king-sized megabed, which we have to crawl over to get to the closet on the other side. It's worth it.
We converted two single beds with an aisle between them into a king-sized megabed, which we have to crawl over to get to the closet on the other side. It’s worth it. Pictured here is the shaker peg rail we installed to hang our curtains and “bedside pockets.”

So here is the plan, as of today:

pod plan v5
“Inertia” and “Tioga” are names of RVs (guess which one drives?). South is to the right – most of the structures have a long side facing south, for solar gain in the winter.

And here’s are two books that have inspired my pod-homestead thinking: